Saturday, November 23, 2013

How Children Fail by John Holt

This book resonated with me personally because I experienced first hand the fear and terror that is often created in the classroom by people who perhaps mean well but do the opposite of actually teaching.  Holt observed that the traditional classroom is not an area of free inquiry and discovery, but rather a place where the child sits in fear of not knowing the correct answers.  He observed that most schools are answer driven instead of discovery oriented for the student.

Most classrooms are controlled by what the teacher envisions and determines to be what is good for the student.  Holt favors, however, a child centered classroom according to the child's level of inquiry. He shows in many instances all a child needs is a little bit of more time to contemplate without any fear.  Patience is required to allow those gears of thinking and processing to work in the mind of a young student.  Most schools, Holt claims, are geared toward the very brilliant student that does not need time to do figuring.  The consequences of such an atmosphere for many breed contempt for school.

I shall relate two poignant personal instances that had calamitous effects on my school experience that my parents worried whether I would ever recover to be a successful student.  These two instances emotionally shut me down to the extent that my parents were concerned about my shyness and timidity.  Thankfully, due to our move to the West Coast, and a very enthusiastic, sensitive and caring third grade teacher, I came out of my shell.

The first instance happened in first grade during a reading specialist session.  My class waited patiently for our spelling tests to be distributed.  The teacher would call out a name, and that person would rise from their desk and walk up to the teacher's desk to be greeted with some congratulatory comment with the test placed in one's hand.  I had not noticed anything untoward, as my name was called.  I rose and approached the teacher's desk, putting out my hand with a big smile on my face as my teacher offered my test to me.  I took the test into my hand, however, the teacher did not let go. Expecting some congratulations, I received, instead, a stern reprimand: "Gentlemen do not wear their sweaters around their waists!  If you think you are a gentleman, YOU WILL go back to your seat and return to receive your test as a gentleman!!"  I was so dumbfounded, so stunned I did not understand that she wanted me to untie the sleeves of my sweater that were around my waist and come back to the desk.  I returned to my seat completely embarrassed and sat down.  Everyone waited in deafening silence.  I did not know what do!  Some kind girl whispered to me to remove the sweater and go back up to the teacher!  I obeyed my neighbor's whisper, shedding the sweater and approached the teacher blanched with trembling fear.  She gave me my perfect score test with a smile, saying, "That's better, that's a gentleman!"  I was damaged...

The other instance happened in the second grade.  My teacher was an old angry spinster who always demanded quiet.  When one of the more popular students, an actual teacher's pet got yelled at, I knew the year would not go well.  It happened in late November, toward the end of the day, my teacher was up to her old tricks yelling for quiet and demanded that no one say a word!  She snapped at her pet practically bringing her favorite to tears.  I felt bad for my fellow student, yet I had my own problem at that moment: I needed to relieve myself.  I sat in fear knowing that the teacher demanded that nobody say a word - to me meaning one could not even ask to go to the lavatory.  So I kept looking at the clock hoping I could last until the bell would ring all the while holding in that which needed to come out.  My calculations fell short.  The bell would not ring until well after my teacher discovered the puddle under my desk.  "YOU MUST BE SICK! go to the nurse right now!" was her reaction and I removed my tearful self from the room and headed for the main office that housed the nurse's station.  I sat there until the bell rang and then was dismissed to go catch my bus home all the time crying.  When my brother asked why I was crying, someone offered a reason, "he's obviously crying because President Kennedy was shot!"  I did not offer a correction as the reason for my crying since at least I now had a legitimate reason and not an embarrassing one upon which to rely.  The day President Kennedy was assassinated will always be remembered as a national humiliation, but for me it was also a personal humiliation...

I remember that after my third grade year, my parents celebrated with a swim party.  My third grade teacher was invited with her family.  I felt quite embarrassed that my teacher came to our house.  It wasn't until years later that my parents explained to me that they wanted to express their appreciation to her for helping me have a successful year.  They explained that I was very shy and timid after living in New York and that they were frightened that I would never come out of my 'shell'.  They were grateful that my teacher took a special interest in my development and enabled me to have a very successful year.

She created a safe, enthusiastic atmosphere of discovery and friendship; there was no fear, no apprehension, no embarrassment: it was of the classroom John Holt had advocated.

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